The Apocalypse and the Islamic State
originally published at ABTS Lebanon
Recently our community had the privilege of hearing a lecture by New Testament scholar David deSilva based on his book on John’s Apocalypse titled Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning. The thrust of the lecture was a challenge to read John’s apocalyptic message in light of events transpiring in the lifetime of John and his readers. Revelation is a letter to specific churches in John’s day, according to Professor deSilva. What is more, it is not about emerging powers in our day or the distant future. It concerns primarily the prominent power in John’s day—the Roman Empire. Its message urges early Christ-followers not to be co-opted by the Empire’s seduction, to have no other loyalties than Christ and his Kingdom even though the price for faithfulness be martyrdom.
The author’s point of view inspired some lively conversation as two Middle Eastern scholars responded to him and he also fielded questions from the listening audience. One respondent asked the American professor to help the Middle Eastern church make sense of the current blood-letting of Christians and others at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the culture of death that seems to grow unabated in our Middle Eastern context. Another respondent asked flatly what Christians should do to stop the death machine’s relentless march.
Our visiting lecturer wisely avoided prescribing a path of action for the Middle Eastern church but he did have a response for us to contemplate. As an exegete his comfort zone was deciphering what the text of the Apocalypse was saying to its audience. He avowed that he was not particularly fond of John’s approach to discipleship, which seemed to him, to exhort Christians to be ready to shed their blood in resistance of the empire’s forceful grip of corruption and exploitation. Putting it bluntly, John called his readers to death in their pursuit of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.
Some of us in attendance were struggling. It just doesn’t seem right! Those twenty-one orange-clad Egyptian Copts herded out on the beaches of Libya to be beheaded by practitioners of a repugnant ideology…and it’s impossible to count the number of those who have been exterminated in Iraq and Syria. What a waste of life! And all of it filmed and posted to the internet to slake the curious eyes of a watching world.
In fact, one of the speakers captured the sense of meaninglessness as he pointed out that the deaths of these cannot be construed to carry the same significance as the death of their Master. These are lambs helpless, defenseless. They die at the whim of men driven mad by a demonic ideology repudiated and condemned by people of all faiths.
Was John (the Apostle) weird? Was he so caught up in the sufferings of his own day that he became morose, morbid, promoting a senseless willingness to die? Certainly some of the audience in our lecture didn’t want to hear one more exhortation to die for the sake of religious faith…any religious faith. Enough is enough!
John’s proclivity might seem weird to us…out of touch, excessive.
But isn’t this the very same apostle who recorded Jesus saying “I am come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”
“Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
“He who believes in me, from his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.”
Wasn’t he called “the one Jesus loved’, the one to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his own mother?
Isn’t this the guy who leaned on Jesus’ chest and asked “who is it Lord?”—which one of us will be the cause of your senseless murder?
My point is simply this: John is an Apostle of Christ. He carries Jesus’ authority, and for good reason, because he knew Jesus intimately, walked with him closely and imbibed the truth that Jesus taught and embodied. When John calls us to be willing to die in pursuit of Jesus’ Kingdom, it may seem overwhelming—something like a culture of death, but it is not that. We need a vision reorientation. That’s what apostles do for us. John is calling us to embrace the true life offered to us in union with Jesus. He beckons us to lose what is ephemeral and fading and soon to be lost anyway in order to gain what can never be lost.
Maybe, just maybe, instead of trying to squeeze the Bible into the mold of what we find most accommodating to our lifestyle, John is doing exactly what Jesus did—calling us to squeeze ourselves and our attachments and preferences into a mold that has very little in common with our consumer society.
In fact, John is not proffering death. He is offering life.
So how do the deaths of the twenty-one martyrs of Libya make sense? Having lived in Egypt for quite a few years, there’s one thing I know about the Coptic Church of Egypt—they don’t forget their martyrs. Icons are already pressing the images of these departed saints into the minds and hearts of young Egyptian Christians. If, like me, you grew up in the Protestant Evangelical tradition, icons probably seem strange to you. But I’ve learned that for Christians in the Middle East, it is holy art—the gospel in living color. It continues to tell the story of the “great cloud of witnesses.” It is eternal art because the church keeps it alive integrating it into its worship and prayer. Yes. Believe it or not, the martyrs are alive and well in the Coptic Orthodox church.
The “senseless” deaths of the Middle Eastern Christians who have fallen at the hands of ISIS can only become meaningless if you and I let that happen. Their death is an invitation to us to re-examine our undying commitment to conformity to the world…to press their sacrifice into our hearts and minds…to realize we belong to another Kingdom and we’ll only be home once that Kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven.
John wasn’t weird. He was telling us the truth. His vision of the Apocalypse still speaks in today’s Middle East.
“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
1 We take the traditional view that the author of Revelation was John the Son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple. Though some suggest a different author known as John the Elder, the most ancient witnesses in Church history identify the author as John the son of Zebedee who also authored the fourth gospel. These witnesses include Justin Martyr writing c 135-150AD, Melito of Sardis (mid 2nd century) and Irenaeus of Lyons writing c. 185AD. Thematic links between John’s Gospel and Revelation such as Jesus as the Word of God and Lamb of God also favor the authorship of the Apostle John
2 See this website for the response of the Egyptian Bible Society to the martyrdom: http://www.darelketab.org/bs3/en/default.aspx